FIG. 1: Clavia''s new Nord Modular G2 expands on its predecessors by offering more horsepower and new modules. The system is available in several configurations, including three- and five-octave keyboards and a rack unit.
Clavia's Nord Modular, introduced in 1997, was a revolutionary concept: a DSP-configurable modular synthesizer in a compact hardware box. A computer was required for programming, but the hardware had a two-octave keyboard and assignable knobs for live performance. At the time, the only comparable product was Symbolic Sound's Kyma system, which had more audio-processing power but cost more and lacked a keyboard and knobs.
In the intervening years, computer-based modular synthesis has made great strides. The advantage of software-only modulars such as Native Instruments Reaktor is that when you buy a new computer with a faster CPU, your existing synth will acquire more polyphony. The chip speed of Clavia's new Nord Modular G2 version 1.10 can't be bumped up, but there are other factors to consider: the advantage of the G2 lies in its well-designed hardware interface, which includes hands-on controls and integrated audio I/O. Once you've used a computer to create your patches, you can take the G2 to a gig and leave the computer at home.
The G2 is a significant advance over the original Nord Modular. In fact, Clavia prefers to look at it as an entirely new product. The hardware package is far more playable as a musical instrument. Although many modules and the basic design of the software interface are the same as before, new types of software modules have been added. Strangely, a few of the more interesting oscillator and filter modules found in version 3.0 of the earlier OS have vanished. According to Clavia, the DSP has been entirely reworked. Patches created in the original Nord Modular are not forward-compatible with the new hardware unit, which is bound to disappoint owners of the earlier instrument who would like to upgrade. They'll have to reprogram their favorite user-created patches from the ground up.
THE RED BOX
Except for the arrangement of knobs and buttons on the panel, the G2 looks a lot like Clavia's other keyboards, sporting a bright red case and the terrific spring-loaded pitch bender first introduced on the Nord Lead (see Fig. 1). If you have never used the Nord Pitchstick, you are in for a treat: player-controlled vibrato, which is all but impossible on most synths due to the center detent in their pitch-bending hardware, is both easy to use and expressive. The standard G2 provides a three-octave Velocity- and Aftertouch-sensing keyboard with full-size unweighted keys.
FIG. 2: Shown above is the FATBass NL2 factory patch, viewed in the Nord Modular G2 Editor software. User-selectable colors make the various module sections easier to see. FATBass, which has two oscillators, one filter, three LFOs, and five envelopes, can produce up to seven notes of polyphony.
The G2X is functionally identical but has a five-octave semiweighted keyboard. It also offers double the processing power of the G2, as the optional voice-expansion board is built-in. For those who want the sound power but don't need the knobs, the G2 Engine, a 1U rackmount module with no panel functionality at all, is also available.
The keyboard model's front panel has five 2-line-by-16-character green LCDs. One of these displays system information, patch names, and so on. The other four are arrayed above the row of eight definable knobs and show the current knob function and the data value. The knobs rotate freely, and each has a concentric 16-segment LED, which gives you some extra visual feedback on the current position of the knob. Below each knob is a button that can be assigned separately.
Are eight knobs enough? Not to worry. Thanks to an ingenious arrangement of buttons in an L-shaped array at the right end of the panel, you have nearly instant access to any of 15 different knob “banks.” In reality, then, the G2 has a generous 120 definable knobs. Part of creating your own patches is manually assigning the knobs to parameters with which you intend to interact, one parameter at a time.
Just above the keyboard is a row of eight Variation buttons, which are used to store variations on the current patch. Variations are like sound programs in a conventional synth in that all of the Variations share the underlying structure of modules and connections that define the patch. If the patch has defined front-panel knobs, you can easily create new Variations and then store the patch (including its variations) without having the computer hooked up. However, reconfiguring the patch itself from the front panel is not possible.
The rear panel is well set up. In addition to the connections you'd expect (four audio outs, MIDI In/Out/Thru, a headphone out, and sustain footswitch and sweep-pedal inputs), it has four audio inputs for processing external signals and a mic-level XLR input with a front-panel trim pot and three-LED metering. A USB connector for computer interfacing completes the picture.
The G2 contains 6 MB of patch memory. How many patches and performances you'll have room for, however, depends entirely on the complexity of the patches. According to Clavia, the average patch requires only 3 KB, but complex patches naturally take up more memory. Patches and performances are organized into banks of 128 objects each. There's a theoretical limit of 32 banks of patches and 8 banks of performances, but you'll probably run out of memory before that limit is reached.
The G2 is four-part multitimbral, so up to four independent patches can be active at once in a performance, either in keyboard split/layer zones or on separate MIDI channels. Several differences between G2 performances and the multi mode on a typical synth are worth noting. First, each G2 patch will normally have its own effects, though it's possible to use global audio buses to send signals from one slot to another. Second, the G2's performance memory contains all of the actual data for each patch, not just pointers to the single-mode patches. Thus you can freely edit the patches in your performances without worrying about destroying other sounds. Although there's some potential for confusion here, these are excellent features.
Unlike combi/multi/setup definitions in many workstation synths, the performances in the G2 are minimal. In particular, they don't contain information on MIDI channel assignments, audio-output routing, Velocity zones, or even pitch transposition and output volume. Those factors are all handled by reprogramming the patches within the performance as needed. Because the patch data is unique to the performance rather than being a pointer to data stored in patch memory, that is not, for the most part, a problem. However, the MIDI channel assignments for the four slots are found in global (system) mode — that is an inconvenience, as you may want to use different performances over MIDI in different ways. Having to change the channel assignments manually each time you switch to a different musical task is an unnecessary extra step.
Using the four slot buttons, the Shift button, and the KB Split button, it's possible to change the combination of active patches while playing the keyboard. You can even switch from one keyboard-assigned patch to another without experiencing any audible glitches, provided that both patches are preloaded. If KB Split is active, one of four green LEDs directly above the keyboard will glow to show the split point. In this situation, the patches in slots A and B will be assigned to the left side of the split, and the patches in slots C and D will be assigned to the right side. The split point can be assigned to only one of the four fixed positions using the front-panel buttons, but the keyboard zones are fully programmable in the Editor software.
The big disappointment with the G2 is its limited polyphony. When I loaded four different factory patches (FATBass NL2, YetAnotherOrgan, Bells, and NordSynth) into the four slots, I found that each of them was reduced to monophonic operation. When I deactivated the other three slots, YetAnotherOrgan was capable of 6-note polyphony, whereas NordSynth by itself could generate ten simultaneous notes. Examining the NordSynth patch, I found a standard lineup of analog-type modules: two oscillators, three LFOs, five envelopes (three of them simple AD types), and a filter, as well as delay, reverb, and chorus effects. The G2 could clearly use more polyphony.
In all fairness, though, the shortage of polyphony may not be a huge drawback, depending on your musical needs. For many modular-type sounds, two or three notes at a time will fill the speakers with convoluted sheets of sound. It may be best not to think of the G2 as a multitimbral workstation. Like other musical instruments, it has unique strengths and limitations. If you need more voices, you can add Clavia's G2 voice-expansion card, which doubles the DSP and retails for only $450.
ROLL YOUR OWN
The concepts behind creating your own patches in the G2 are easy to grasp. The software interface is designed to look a lot like a hardware modular system, in which modules are connected — using the mouse, in this case — by patch cords (see Fig. 2). Gaining mastery over the system will take a little time, however, because of the sheer number of modules available, the number of possible connections among them, and the assortment of multiposition switches found in many of the modules.
Individual modules can be dragged into the main work area from the multitabbed “parts-box” interface at the top of the window. It contains lots of modules, and they're grouped into convenient categories: In/Out, Osc, LFO, Random (just released as of this writing), Env, Shaper, Filter, Mixer, Seq, FX, MIDI, and so on. Some categories have only five or six modules, while others have upwards of a dozen. In the oscillator group, for instance, you can choose any of four basic types (OscA through OscD), a phase-modulation oscillator, two oscillators with dynamic waveshaping, a dual oscillator, a Karplus-Strong plucked-string model, an analog percussion-tone source, a fancier DrumSynth oscillator, a noise source, and a master-tuning reference source.
A patch has two work areas: one for modules such as filters and oscillators, which need to be provided separately in each voice, and one for patch-common modules such as effects. The effects area has its own input module, which has two stereo buses, so it's possible to route signals to the effects in many different ways.
Each module has a slightly (or radically) different array of features, and each can use a different amount of DSP. The amount can also vary depending on the positions of various switches in the module. If you choose an OscA or an OscD and set it to produce a sine wave, you'll be using only 1.8 percent of the available DSP (as indicated on a display in the upper part of the screen). The Shape A oscillator, on the other hand, uses 11.8 percent. To maximize polyphony, it's important to choose the least “expensive” module type needed for a given sound. Note that the percentages shown in the display refer to the amount of DSP used within one of the four available slots. If you are playing in single mode, you will have four slots available, so a patch that shows a 20 percent load will be able to play 20 voices (five per slot).
The software functions as a basic librarian: using menu commands, you can upload or download both single patches and performances and entire banks. However, there's no librarian “housekeeping” page with which to rearrange the patches in banks. To do that, you'll need to upload patches one at a time into a bank in the synth and then download your new bank to the computer for disk storage. The Patch Browser in the Tools menu provides a quick way to look at lists of patches in the G2 and on your hard drive and to load patches from the list, but it lacks copy utilities.
The Editor allows you to assign colors to individual modules or groups of modules, which helps to make the organization of a patch visually clearer. Six different cable colors are provided, and cables of selected colors can be hidden to reduce visual clutter. Other visual amenities include blinking LED indicators in some modules — such as LFOs and envelope generators — and small envelope-shaped graphics (which can't be edited with the mouse).
The computer's arrow keys can be used for editing values in the currently selected module without touching the mouse. Using the arrow keys with the Shift key allows you to select different modules. Right-clicking on a knob or other control value in a module brings up a menu in which you can assign the control to a front-panel knob or a MIDI Control Change message. Modules can be renamed, which is useful for keeping track of a complex patch onscreen. The name of the module will show up in the LCDs above the hardware knobs when its controls are assigned to the knobs.
Once a module is in place in a patch, it displays an arrow-shaped menu handle in the upper-left corner, which can instantly replace the module with a different one from the same group. To whatever extent is possible, the software will retain the patching of a module when it's replaced — that's a great feature. You can start with one filter, for instance, and then swap in a different filter without having to reconnect the audio and modulation signals.
Most of the modules in the G2's toolbox are based on analog-synthesis concepts. The instrument will also do FM synthesis, and there's a plucked-string oscillator that uses the classic Karplus-Strong algorithm. Sample playback and more-complex digital-synthesis procedures, such as granular synthesis, are not implemented. The palette of tone colors is broadened considerably by strong waveshaping features, which include not only oscillators with shapeable waveforms, but also seven different waveshaper modules. In my experiments, the waveshapers turned out to be the key to turning ho-hum analog-style tones into searing, edgy sounds.
For the most part, modules have to be patched together manually. A few of the most commonly used routings are handled for you. The oscillators and filters automatically track incoming MIDI notes, and the envelope generators receive MIDI gates thanks to invisible “hard-wired” routings, which you can override if desired.
Even the simplest oscillator has selectable waveforms and a couple of inputs for pitch modulation (one with an attenuator and one without), as well as coarse- and fine-tuning knobs and a keyboard-tracking on/off switch. Most oscillators have other features, such as inputs for FM, waveshaping, or phase modulation. One nice feature is that the coarse-tuning knob can be set to use semitones, hertz, a multiplication factor above or below concert pitch, or the partial number. The latter makes it much easier to create classic FM patches.
The DrumSynth module has two oscillators with decay time, level, and tuning knobs; noise and click sources; a multimode filter for the noise (with its own decay envelope); and pitch-envelope amount and decay-time controls (see Fig. 3). Only the volume of the click is adjustable and not its pitch — that seems like an odd omission. You could wire up a device much like the DrumSynth by hand, which would give you added flexibility in your design. But then you wouldn't have access to the DrumSynth's 30 presets. The presets allow you to quickly create, for example, an electro beatbox using a dozen drumlike sound sources and a dozen MIDI Note Receive modules (808 kicks and swishy hi-hats are readily available). Adding Overdrive and WaveWrap modules to the DrumSynth's output does a lot to beef up the tone.
More than a dozen different filters are available. The simplest are nonresonant lowpass and highpass models with selectable rolloff slopes of up to 36 dB per octave. The FltStatic module is also simple, but it has a resonance knob and a choice of lowpass, bandpass, or highpass operation with a fixed 12 dB slope. There's also a basic wah-wah (bandpass) filter with a sweep input.
More often, patches will benefit from the FltNord and FltClassic modules. The Nord filter offers a choice of four modes, including band-reject, and you can choose either 12 or 24 dB rolloff slope. It has three inputs for cutoff-frequency control and another for resonance control. The Classic filter is strictly lowpass and has no input for resonance control, but 12, 18, and 24 dB modes are provided. The FltMulti module is similar to the Classic, but has 6 and 12 dB modes and three simultaneous outputs for lowpass, bandpass, and highpass operation.
The FltPhase module can sound rich and expressive with an input that has lots of harmonic content (such as a sawtooth wave). You can set the number of notches that will be produced, and the module has controls and modulation inputs for frequency, feedback (notch depth), and notch spread. The FltComb module is similar in concept but has fewer features. For sheer expressiveness, though, it would be hard to beat the FltVoice module; that device filters the signal with three formant peaks. You can select a characteristic vowel sound for each peak, sweep among the vowels, offset them with a frequency knob and associated control input, and control the amount of resonance in the peaks.
Three different EQ modules are found in the filter section: a one-band fully parametric, a low- and high shelving with fixed 80 Hz and 12 kHz corner frequencies, and a 3-band with fixed lows and high shelving plus a semiparametric mid. None of these modules have control inputs or keyboard tracking, but any of the knobs can be morphed from the keyboard, Velocity, the Modulation Wheel, and so on.
Regarding the vocoder, the manual provides no information on the exact frequencies of the 16 bands (you can get that information from Clavia's Web site), and frequency settings are not user-adjustable. However, you can patch any analysis band to any carrier-filter band, so recognizable speech and special effects are eminently feasible. The normal procedure is to route one of the G2's audio inputs to the control input of the vocoder, but I found that sending the control input a sine wave whose frequency was being swept up and down by an LFO was also an interesting effect.
Nine different envelope generators are available, including the classic ADSR; a multisegment envelope with four rates and four levels; simple decay, ADR, and AHD types; and a couple with modulation inputs for individual stages. Each EG has its own built-in voltage-controlled amplifier (VCA) through which signals can be passed, a feature that makes patching a bit easier and reduces screen clutter. Each EG has a multiposition switch for inverting or changing the range of the output. The more complex EGs also have switches for choosing logarithmic, linear, or exponential attack and decay curves. Normally the EGs receive their gate signals by means of an invisible patch cord from the keyboard (MIDI input) module, but a trigger/gate jack can be used instead.
The LFOs (there are four in all, as well as a clock generator) have invert/range switching like the envelope generators, as well as rate-modulation inputs and range switching with four settings: Sub, Lo, Hi, and bpm. Another setting common to all of the LFOs is a Poly/Mono switch, which is used in polyphonic patches to choose whether each voice will have its own LFO or whether all voices will share a single LFO. The more complex LFOs also have sync and reset jacks and multiposition keyboard-tracking switches with five choices (25, 50, 75, or 100 percent; and off). (The same keyboard-tracking options are also available for the filters.) The most complex LFO module, LfoShpA, allows both waveshape and wave phase to be modulated. Standard LFO techniques such as delayed onset and ramp-up time have to be patched by hand, but this is easy to do.
STEP ON IT
Five step sequencers are included in the module repertoire. Each provides a maximum of 16 steps, but they can be limited to shorter patterns. Two or more can be chained if longer sequences are needed, but when they're chained, the composite sequences always have to be 8, 16, or 32 beats long (each beat containing either four 16th-note pulses or twenty-four 96th notes). The most complex sequencer is shown in Fig. 4. Each sequencer has both trigger/gate and control-voltage outputs, except for the simplest one, which has two rows of trigger/gates. You can set up complex polyrhythms by routing the trigger outputs to envelope generators.
For experimentally minded musicians, one of the G2's most intense features may be its three MIDI output modules. These will send MIDI Notes, Control Change data, or Program Change messages to the unit's physical MIDI Out port on any of the 16 channels. Alternatively, you can select an internal slot as the destination. One obvious use for these modules is to control other devices from the G2's step sequencers. Another good option is to create a complex keyboard-split/layer configuration; your input can come either from the G2's own keyboard or from an external MIDI source and can be processed in arbitrary ways before being retransmitted. For example, you could build a one-finger chord generator that would change the chord voicing in response to a footswitch or other trigger.
Lack of space precludes any discussion of the Mixer, Switch, Level, Logic, or FX modules. If you're curious to see what's available, you can download and install the G2 Editor software, which is not copy-protected. It won't do anything in the absence of the G2 hardware, but you can inspect the features of the modules in detail.
The real power of the G2 as a performance instrument lies in its morphing implementation. Eight separate morph sources are available per patch. Typical morph sources include Velocity, the Modulation Wheel, Channel Pressure, and the Pitchstick, but any knob or MIDI Control Change message can be used. Each morph source can adjust the levels of any combination of module knobs in the patch (whether or not the module knob happens to be assigned to a panel knob).
The direction and depth of the morphing is separately programmable for each knob. In addition, the morphing assignments can be different for each of the patch's eight variations. Using morphing, you can do anything from subtle timbral inflections in response to the Modulation Wheel to the wildest imaginable sonic mutations and gyrations.
PATCH IT UP
From the wealth of standard types of sounds in the factory set — pads, electric pianos, synth basses, guitar emulations, and so on — it's clear Clavia intends the G2 to be seen as a general-purpose synth and not just as a special-effects box. When checking out these patches, it's important to try the Variation buttons, as most patches have eight separate variations suitable for different musical situations. Overall, I'd describe the G2's sound as broad, colorful, and incredibly varied, but perhaps not quite as thick or punchy as some other digital virtual-analog synths.
A number of four-beat techno riffs that use the step sequencers are included; because most transpose from the keyboard, you can use them in any key. In some patches, the knob banks are set up to interact with specific sequence steps, allowing you to change the pattern on the fly. External sync is available for the sequence clocks and the more powerful delay-line modules, but in some of the factory patches a little reprogramming is needed to gain access to it.
Only a few patches chip away at the boundaries of conventional programming, but those patches show off the G2's true capabilities. Mordent1, for instance, is a repeating plucked sound that cycles through a spectrum of overtones in a rhythm that begins fast and then slows down (see Web Clip 1). Haunted serves up a horror-movie choir and demonic laughter by way of the vocal-formant filter. And 3 indie oscs changes from note to note like a bagpipe from The Twilight Zone. (See Web Clips 2 and 3 for additional sonic examples.)
The G2 is an ideal synth for anyone who needs a modular voice design and lots of real-time interactive control from the front panel. Its main advantages over computer-based software are the well-designed and playable panel, portability and quick patch loading for live use, and the stable operating system. Although the factory sound set makes it clear that you can also use the G2 for more standard synth chores, its limited polyphony and relatively high cost will probably keep it from being competitive in the latter market.
As with any modular synth, a bit of mental effort will be needed if you want to plumb the G2's depths. But Clavia is to be commended for making the software interface very clear and easy to navigate. If you're interested in modular programming and have the necessary budget, the G2 would be an ideal system to learn on. If you're already a modular power user, download the Editor software and take a look: I bet you'll be impressed.
Jim Aikinwrites about music technology for various magazines. His latest book is Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Backbeat Books, 2004). His most recent and most cherished acquisition is a 5-string electric cello.
Nord Modular G2 Specifications
Synthesis Types modeled analog, additive, FM, plucked-string Module Types In/Out, Note, Osc, LFO, Random, Env, Shaper, Filter, Mixer, Switch, Level, Logic, Seq, FX, Delay, MIDI Editor System PC: Pentium II/500 MHz, 128 MB RAM, Windows Requirements 98SE/2000/XP, USB 1.1
Mac: Mac G3/400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, OS X 10.2 Analog Inputs (4) ¼" unbalanced line-level (-10dBV), (1) XLR mic-level in with adjustable trim Analog Outputs (4) ¼" unbalanced line-level (-10dBV), (1) ¼" stereo headphone MIDI Connectors (1) In, (1) Out, (1) Thru Computer Interfacing USB Program Memory 6 MB, up to 32 banks of 128 patches each, up to 8 banks of 128 performances each (actual number depends on patch complexity), (8) Variations per patch Keyboard 37-note unweighted, Velocity- and Pressure-sensitive Polyphony patch-dependent Multitimbral Parts 4 Controllers (8) knobs with 15 assignments each, (8) buttons, spring-loaded Pitchstick, left-hand wheel Pedal Inputs (1) sweep pedal, (1) switch (polarity switchable) Dimensions 26" (W) × 3 ¾" (H) × 11" (D) Weight 11.24 lbs.
Nord Modular G2
DSP-based modular synthesizer
G2 engine (rack) $1,399
voice expansion card $450
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS3.5VALUE4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Highly configurable front panel includes 120 knob definitions with LCD function displays. Lots of useful modules for voice design. MIDI output modules. Excellent Nord Pitchstick.
CONS: Limited polyphony. Not backward-compatible with patches from earlier Nord Modular. Storable performance-level parameters are minimal.